Found in Translation

Found in Translation

In praise of a plural world

Linda Jaivin


Whether we’re aware of it or not, we spend much of our time in this globalised world in the act of translation. Language is a big part of it, of course, as anyone who has fumbled with a phrasebook in a foreign country will know, but behind language is something far more challenging to translate: culture. As a traveller, a mistranslation might land you a bowl of who-knows-what when you think you asked for noodles, and mistranslations in international politics can be a few steps from serious trouble. But translation is also a way of entering new and exciting worlds, and forging links that never before existed. This is a free-ranging essay, personal and informed, about translation in its narrowest and broadest senses, and the prism – occasionally prison – of culture.

“What’s the French for fiddle-de-dee?”

“Fiddle-de-dee’s not English,” Alice replied gravely.

“Who ever said it was?” said the Red Queen.

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

About six years ago, President George W. Bush was delivering a speech at a G8 summit, when, made impatient by the process of translation, he interrupted his German interpreter: “Everybody speaks English, right?” Chancellor Angela Merkel responded, “Be patient,” and signalled the translator to carry on. Those telling this story speak of Bush and Merkel, but the interpreter goes unnamed. Translators are used to labouring in the shadows. And yet diplomatic interpreters, literary translators, film.title-bodyrs and even document drones play a role akin to Ariadne in Greek mythology: while everyone’s eyes are on Theseus and the Minotaur, translators hold the ball of thread that guides the hero out of the Labyrinth.

If you have ever found yourself in a bookshop tempted by Murakami or the latest Scandinavian thriller but thinking that it is about time you read Proust; if you read Putin’s op-ed piece on Syria in the New York Times or followed the sensational trial of fallen Chinese politburo member Bo Xilai on SBS; if you have taken a subway in Paris, Moscow or Tokyo; if you saw The Rocket, the award-winning Australian movie set in Laos, or are a fan of film-makers like Almodóvar or Wong Kar-Wai; if you have toured Uluru with an Indigenous guide who told stories from the Dreaming; if you have attempted to assemble an eccentrically named wardrobe from Ikea, or installed a Korean washing machine or photocopier; if you have ever asked the waiter in an Italian restaurant to explain a dish on the menu – in other words, unless you speak all 7000 languages that exist in the world, or abide in a cave without even a copper-wire connection – you live in a world found in translation. Translation lays the tracks over which news, trade, aid, diplomacy, ideas and culture travel. Translation is the invisible skein that binds our world.

It also, from time to time, threatens to unravel it. In 1993, Prime Minister Paul Keating called the Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad a “recalcitrant” for refusing to attend that year’s APEC summit. Mahathir, whose English is excellent, translated the word into an insult of such severity that he threatened to curtail diplomatic relations and trade with Australia. Yet compared with Keating’s usual robust vocabulary of abuse – “scumbag,” “brain-dead,” “boxhead,” “intellectual rustbucket” – “recalcitrant” might have passed for faint praise. In like manner, Prime Minister Tony Abbott discovered the hard way that political rhetoric that whistles up support at home doesn’t read so well on the international stage: “Stop the boats” translates in Indonesia as a potential insult to Indonesian sovereignty, and calling the ALP “whacko” in a Washington Post interview translates as a “gaffe” to even right-wing commentators in the US. To the Communist Party of China, engaged in a tense stand-off with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, Abbott’s statement, “Japan is our best friend in Asia,” translates in China to, “Australia has a lot of explaining to do.”

The sixteenth-century Italian diplomat Gasparo Contarini always insisted on speaking through an interpreter so that if misunderstandings arose, the blame could be shifted to the translation. But sometimes the translator needs thanking: when a Hungarian leader receiving a ceremonial welcome in Sierra Leone was referred to as the president of Bulgaria, it was the interpreter who, without missing a beat, corrected the error.

The English word “translation” derives from the Latin trans, meaning across, plus latum, the past participle of to bear or carry. It describes transferring something from one place or realm (real or metaphorical) to another, and is not confined to language. Catholics speak of translating the relics of saints when they move them from one shrine to the next. Social campaigners advocate translating concern into action. Novels are translated into films and films into theatre shows. The Chooky Dancers of Elcho Island translated Zorba the Greek into dance and dance into humour. Japanese and Chinese animators translated the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (also known as Monkey) into cartoons; computer programmers translated it into multi-platform games; and alternative-rocker Damon Albarn translated it into opera. Theatre from Brazil to Spain to the US to South Korea would not be what it is today without translations of Brecht; nor would Scorsese be Scorsese without the French Nouvelle Vague, or Tarantino Tarantino without John Woo. One of my first jobs, sub-editing primary-school English textbooks at the Oxford University Press in Hong Kong in 1980, involved “translating” text such as “this is a pig” to “this is a pin” so that the books could be sold in the predominantly Muslim Indonesian and Malaysian markets.

The broad conception of translation that exists in English doesn’t itself translate into all other languages. In many other languages, you might not call most or any of the examples above “translations” at all. To describe the process of translating from one language to another in Hindi, you use the word anuvad, which means to tell again. The Chinese word is 翻译 fanyi: fan, turning around, reversing or rummaging, plus yi, which closely correlates to what we mean in English by either translate or interpret (translate orally). In ancient China, there were different words for translators according to where they worked and the languages from which they translated: ji in the east, xiang in the south, Didi in the west and yi (as in fanyi) in the north.

The Japanese have a particularly expressive vocabulary for literary translation. Some words carry judgments of quality, ranging from the humble setsuyaku, “[my] clumsy translation,” to meiyaku, “celebrated” translation, and even chōyaku, a translation that is better than the original (and the registered trademark of a Japanese publisher). Others are descriptive: shōyaku is the translation of an excerpt from a longer work, taiyaku is a translation in which the original text appears on the facing page, jūyaku is a translation of a translation and ten’yaku is a translation into Braille.


If translation can claim a founding myth, it would have to be the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. When the Great Flood receded and Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, the story goes, all the human survivors spoke the same tongue. They lived well and harmoniously until Noah’s grandson Nimrod became a property developer. Nimrod constructed a city with a soaring tower that, when finished, would reach heaven itself – but failed to secure council permission first. Yahweh was not keen on sharing the view. To stop the tower, He sabotaged the builders’ communications, dividing their speech into mutually unintelligible languages. The builders threw in the trowel, and the tribes scattered over the earth. Over the centuries, through translation, they began to weave themselves back together again: no longer a city of Babel, but a yammering, yabbering global village in which everyone talks at the same time and occasionally manages to communicate.

One strand in the web of translation that binds the globe originates in ancient Greece and Rome. In the time of the Roman orator Cicero (106–43 BCE), to be educated was to know Greek as well as Latin. Like many other ambitious young men of his time, Cicero visited Greece and learned the language well. Back home, he translated Greek philosophy, mythology and poetry into Latin. His translations and other writings influenced the development of Roman culture and thus early Western civilisation generally, and resonated powerfully with the Europeans of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

Among those on whom they had a profound impact was the sixteenth-century German theologian Martin Luther. Luther’s own decision to translate the Bible into a vernacular language – German – proved a landmark in the evolution of Christianity. In the centuries since, translators have rendered the Old and New Testaments into thousands of languages. There are hundreds of English-language translations alone. From Plato to Hillsong, a ravelling thread.

Those translators responsible for the most famous of these, the King James Bible, penned the words that have stood ever since as a sentimental motto for the community of translators: “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light …” The translator’s credo, meanwhile, comes from St Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible and the patron saint of translators: Non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de senso: (as translated by Simon Leys) “Render the sense rather than the words of the text.”

The Latin poet Ovid, born about sixty years after Cicero, also visited Greece and learned its language and poetic forms. Back home, he penned what would later be considered the supreme translation of Graeco-Roman mythology: The Metamorphoses. The first English translator of The Metamorphoses, in the fifteenth century, worked not from the Latin but an earlier French translation. One of the more famous renditions into English was by Arthur Golding in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have genealogical roots in Ovid’s star-crossed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. But whether or not Shakespeare encountered Golding’s translation, he almost certainly read an English verse translation of the Italian writer Luigi da Porto’s Giulietta e Romeo, itself an adaption of a fifteenth-century work that drew on Ovid. Another spooling thread: from Ovid to Baz Luhrmann via Shakespeare.

Ezra Pound once declared that the translation of a poem must either be the “expression of the translator, virtually a new poem,” or like “a photograph, as exact as possible, of one side of the statue.” Yet it was through Pound’s own unique and somewhat eccentric translations, which often answered to both these descriptions, that the economical, image-dense poetries of China and Japan took their place on the ancestral altar of modernist poetry, just as Sanskrit and Persian poetries are inscribed in the literature of classical Arabia. Culture has no homeland: as the celebrated translator from Spanish Edith Grossman has written, when people anywhere speak of “national literature,” they are referring to a “narrowing, confining concept based on the distinction between native and foreign … [which is, in writing] obviated by translation.”

Another example: Homer the Greek influenced Virgil the Roman. Virgil, or a virtual Virgil anyway, guided Dante the Italian. In a famous canto of Dante’s Inferno, Virgil leads Dante to the edge of the ninth and final circle of Hell. From across the way, the agonised giant Nimrod shouts at them: Raphel mai ameche zabi almi. But he is speaking no known language: this is the most famous untranslatable utterance in world literature. Dante moves on, inspiring in turn and in translation countless other writers across centuries and the continents: from Balzac, Borges and T.S. Eliot to Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown and even Karl Marx. Marx, translated into Russian and Chinese, influenced the course of history. Another filament: Homer to Mao. Everyone, everywhere, to everyone, everywhere.

Because translation is perhaps above all a way of reading (or listening) and responding, it is rife with potential for misunderstanding. Even people who share a native language can require translation: there is a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall where a flirtatious conversation between his characters Alvy Singer and Annie Hall is.title-bodyd to translate what the two protagonists are saying into what they really mean. When the languages are different, and the cultures in which they’re embedded more so, it is doubly necessary to mind the gap.

Yet that space in which misunderstanding can breed also provides room for the kind of creative interpretation that allows cultures and the conversations between them to grow and evolve. Very early on, a number of countries on China’s borders, including Korea, Japan and Vietnam, translated the ethical teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE) into their own languages. (Or they read him in Chinese, as educated people in all those places once did, just as educated Britons once could be counted on to read French and know Latin.) Confucius’s teachings helped shape the cultural, political and philosophical traditions of the region to the extent that Confucianism today is as much a part of the definition of East Asia as geography. Yet each of the nations that embraced Confucianism, which later also included Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, gave it their unique interpretation. Each translation of Confucianism, whether in China or elsewhere, draws from the ancient teachings what is most needed at the time – a system for unifying a fractious state, the concept of a meritocracy based on civil-service examinations, or simply a good excuse for paternal authoritarianism. China’s Communist Party, which once viciously repudiated Confucius and all he stood for, has in more recent years embraced him, re-translating him as the sage for a new era of social stability.

Through language classes, other courses and public events, Confucius Institutes, the face of China’s international push for “soft power,” provide an officially approved translation of Chinese culture and politics to the rest of the world. It is a different interpretation from that offered by dissenting voices such as those of the artist-provocateur Ai Weiwei, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and countless other advocates of human rights and free expression who languish in Chinese prisons for their trouble. They appeal to a different school of political thought that arose elsewhere in the world around the same time as Confucius: democracy.

Democracy is another political philosophy that has also been aggressively translated and retranslated numerous times and in so many ways that among the countries who claim it for their own are North Korea (“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) and Azerbaijan, where in October this year, the Central Electoral Commission accidentally released the results of the presidential election the day before polls opened.

Australia is home to a democratic government and almost a dozen Confucius Institutes. It is tied to Great Britain by history and language, economically beholden to China, linked by immigration to every corner of the planet, and is a part of the Asia-Pacific by dint of geography and Indigenous heritage. It is Anglophone, and yet more than 300 languages (including dozens of Aboriginal languages) are spoken here today; more than one in a hundred Australians are native speakers of Mandarin, the most commonly spoken language in Australia after English. Australia, in short, is in a unique position to translate the shift from the “American Century” to the “Asian” one to national advantage. But we also face daunting challenges, which can translate into trouble, if we don’t manage our relationships with all our BFFs (best foreign friends) in Asia and elsewhere more carefully and cultivate mutual respect and cooperation within our own pluralistic and polyglot society. Everybody may indeed speak English, as George W. Bush contended – but they have the right to do otherwise.


This is an extract from Linda Jaivin's Quarterly Essay, Found in Translation: In praise of a plural world. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Linda Jaivin is an Australian writer, the author of eleven books (seven novels and four books of non-fiction including the Quarterly Essay Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World), and a film translator (from Chinese). 


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